I hate meal planning. Anyone who knows me will be baffled by this statement since I am notorious for my hyper-organized meal schedules. But the reason I made all my crazy spreadsheets was that after college and my first few years of marriage, I got really tired of thinking about what to eat. It stressed me out and I never knew what to put on the menu–I am not the kind of person who always has a random recipe I’m dying to try.
After trying a lot of different techniques, I finally settled on a system that works for me: I plan out my meals for an entire season at once. I pick out three weeks worth of meals, then I repeat those three weeks 3-4 times until the next season arrives, when I’ll make the next season’s list.
How do you go about planning an entire season of meals at once? Well, it takes about three hours. Seems like a lot, but remember, you’ll be saving time in the long run when you don’t have to spend 15 minutes wracking your brain each night for what to cook.
Hour One: Brainstorming
Before I get down to trying to lay out a schedule, I do some serious brainstorming to come up with meal ideas. Pull out lots of scratch paper and write down whatever comes to mind when thinking about the season you’re planning for (spring, summer, fall, winter). Here are a few exercises I pull out to get my meal planning mind going:
- What’s broken? - What don’t you like about your current system of meals? Too much pasta? Too little veggies? Too much cooking time on busy nights? Too much Chinese take-out? Write down your frustrations so you can fix them. Also keep in mind the schedule for the upcoming season. If the kids have sports practice on certain nights, write that down so you can plan something simple or a crockpot meal you can prep ahead of time.
- Stretch goals – Every season, I try to set a nutritional goal for our family. Eating more salad, trying out different kinds of beans, consuming less meat, and eating more fish are all goals I’ve used in the past. Pick one to work on this time around. It’s much easier to work on one thing rather than the general goal of “eat healthier.”
- Seasonal produce – I print out a list like this one of the produce that is available in the season I’m planning for. Back when I was planning meals weekly, I would plan around produce sales to reduce my grocery bills. Planning around seasonal produce accomplishes the same thing without the weekly hassle. If you have a garden, think of what produce will be ripening in it.
- Imagine you’re eating out – To make it easier to stay home than to eat out, I will imagine the kinds of foods I would order if I went out to eat. Find a recipe to recreate the dish at home and bam! you can satisfy your cravings and stay at home. Pull out the menus from a few of your favorite restaurants for inspiration.
- Family favorites – If you’re like me, winter makes you think of hearty soups and stews, while summer makes you think salads and grilling. Write down any meals that are “must have” favorites for the season.
- Thematic grids – When coming up with more meals to fill in the gaps, I use a tic-tac-toe grid to generate ideas. I write one set of “themes” along the columns and one along the rows. For example, I might write “chicken, beef, fish” along the columns and “Asian, Mexican, Italian” along the rows. Then I try to come up with a meal that combines both the row idea and the column idea for each box. Where “chicken” and “Mexican” intersect, I’d write my favorite Mexican meal with chicken in it–chicken enchiladas. For “beef” and “Asian,” I’d write beef and broccoli. If you can’t come up with something to fill in a slot, poke around a favorite recipe site and find something new! Some themes you might use to help generate ideas:
- Meats: chicken, beef, pork, fish, meatless
- Ethnic cuisines: Asian, Mexican, Italian, American, Indian
- Grains/starches: pasta, rice, potatoes, tortillas, bread
- Cooking methods: slow cooker, oven, one pot stovetop, grill, salad, stir fry, soup
For three weeks worth of meals, you’ll need about 21 different meal ideas. If that sounds like too much, you can do what I do: throw in a Friday (homemade) pizza night and a Saturday leftovers/eating out night. That knocks out two days and now you only need 15 meal ideas, which is much less scary. Coming up (soon?): hours two and three.